LONDON: The contest for England’s remaining two slots in the Champions League is all over, barring a footballing miracle.
A 3-0 win over Watford lifted Chelsea into third place above Tottenham, who lost a bad-tempered match 1-0 at Bournemouth on Saturday. Remarkably, both Arsenal and Manchester United then threw away the opening offered them.
United slipped into the Europa League slots after managing a poor 1:1 draw at Jan Siewert’s Huddersfield. Then Arsenal were held 1:1 at home by lowly Brighton. The Gunners can pull level with Spurs on 70 points but have a vastly inferior goal difference.
Realistically they can reclaim Champions League access only by winning the Europa League in which they hold a 3:1 semi-final lead over Valencia.
United had regained hope of a Champions League slot with their powerful reaction to Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s appointment at Christmas in place of sacked Jose Mourinho. However they slipped back into their bad old ways with two defeats and six defeats in their last eight league matches.
Solskjaer’s men made even squandered the advantage of an eighth-minute lead provided by Scotland midfielder Scott McTominay but their defence fell asleep on the hour and conceded an equaliser to Isaac Mbenza. Unusually the assist came from goalkeeper Jan Lossl, with a long clearance downfield which caught United by surprise.
The match was then held up for five minutes while the players waited for the replacement of a corner flag which Mbenza kicked, and broke, in his celebration.
Solskjaer applauded United’s travelling fans at the final whistle but even he has acknowledged that he will need two or three years to rebuild their squad. Paul Pogba, who hit the bar in the closing stages, has rarely lived up to his £89m transfer fee and has been linked with Real Madrid.
United manager Solskjaer said: “We are where we are for a reason. Over a long season we haven’t been good enough to challenge for the Champions League places. It’s not come as a surprise but we had hoped to show a better performance today.”
Huddersfield’s Christopher Schindler said: “It’s been a tough season. When I came here I didn’t know what awaited me in the UK. Our season in the second division was amazing. In life there are ups and downs, this season we got a big knock but it’s about standing up and taking positives into next season. Today was a step in the right direction.”
Maurizio Sarri’s Chelsea overtook Tottenham to claim third place after beating FA Cup Finalists Watford 3-0 at Stamford Bridge. Sarri’s men were badly off the pace in the opening halfhour and fortunate to reach halftime goalless. The Blues then raised the pace of their game and seized command with two goals in three minutes from Ruben Loftus-Cheek and David Luiz. Gonzalo Higuain’s added a third with the fifth goal of his half-season in England.
Loftus-Cheek’s goal was created by Eden Hazard, playing possibly his last home game for Chelsea if Real Madrid firm up their expected interest.
Arsenal were left with the need to win the Europa League to return to the Champions League after being held 1-1 by Brighton. Unai Emery’s men lost control of the game remarkably after dominating the first half.
Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang opened the scoring with his 20th league goal of the campaign from a first-half penalty and they should have more. Instead, Granit Xaka conceded a second-half penalty with a moment of madness and Glenn Murray equalised for a Brighton side who had barely ventured out of their own half of the pitch.
Arsenal threw everything forward in the closing stages but Brighton defended superbly and might even have won had Bernd Leno not made a magnificent late save from Pascal Gross.
Whoever finishes fifth and sixth will enter the Europa League and they could be joined by Wolves if Manchester City beat Watford in the FA Cup Final on May 18.
Wolves secured seventh place with a 1-0 win over relegated Fulham. They will stay there unless Leicester beat both Manchester City and Chelsea in their final two matches.